With three active volcanoes and a geological history dating back at least 70 million years, one-of-a-kind Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park (HAVO) is an ideal hiking and camping destination. There are over 140 miles of amazingly varied trails, from senior citizen cakewalks to ass-kicking summit hikes, plus drive-up campsites and backcountry shelters. Established in 1916, the park is the state's only Unesco World Heritage Site.
The park encompasses roughly 333,000 acres of land and keeps on growing: lava pouring from Kilauea has added more than 500 acres in the past 15 years (not all of it within park boundaries, however). In 2003, the park expanded to twice its size with the purchase of 116,000 acres of private ranchland on the southeastern flanks of Mauna Loa.
The current eruption along Kilauea's East Rift Zone started on January 3, 1983, making it the longest in recorded history. Nearly 30 years of continuous action adds up to a lot of lava – some 2.5 billion cubic yards (that's 50,000 gallons a minute for you math freaks). Though languid, Big Island lava can be deadly stuff, consuming trees, houses, roads and anything else in its path. The current eruption destroyed the coastal road to Puna (1987), the Wahaʻula Visitor Center on the south coast (1988) and the entire village of Kalapana (1990), before turning westward and swallowing up Kamoamoa Beach (1994) and most of sacred Waha'ula Heiau. At the time of writing it was flowing over the Royal Gardens Subdivision near Hwy 130 in Puna, sending cars, houses and trees up in flames.
All of this boil, toil and trouble comes from the Puʻu ʻOʻo Vent, a smoldering cone on the park's northeastern border, along the East Rift Zone. Kilauea is a shield volcano, which means it doesn't have the explosive gases of the more dramatic and deadly strato volcanoes found along the Pacific Ocean's Ring of Fire (Mt St Helens in Washington, Mt Pinatubo in the Philippines), which throw ash and flaming rocks into the air. This volcano is instead like a tortoise: the lava slowly creeps along, which is why here you run to, not away from, the volcano.
All those hot lava photos you ogled online before your visit? You probably won't see that. Lava flows are unpredictable, and your vantage point depends on current volcanic activity. Still, if you can't hike out to watch new lava oozing across the landscape, you may be able to get closer on a boat. When this guide was researched, there was a steady sea entry, with lava ribbons pouring into the sea.
The park entrance sits at a lofty 4000ft, with varying elevation and climates within its boundaries. Travelers should check the recorded weather forecast before heading out. Chilly rain, wind, fog and vog (volcanic fog) typify the fickle weather here, which can go from hot and dry to a soaking downpour in a flash. Near Kilauea Caldera, temperatures average 15°F cooler than in Kona, so bring an extra jacket and pair of pants just in case.
Note that there are no restaurant or hotel facilities within the park while Volcano House undergoes renovation (until 2012). Luckily, there are excellent places to stay and eat in Volcano village.